Devon's Beautiful Butterflies
Some of the best sites in Devon for rare and threatened butterflies are Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserves. Butterflies can thrive when we carry out habitat management – on wet grasslands, hay meadows, woodlands and heathlands – to provide an abundance of food plants for caterpillars and nectar sources for adults.
But the Covid pandemic has severely restricted our staff and volunteering activities on nature reserves during the last year. And without our band of hard-working volunteers, we were unable to carry out many of the annual habitat management tasks to benefit butterflies, moths and other insects.
That means we have lots of catching up to do to ensure our nature reserves are in the best possible condition for the widest number of species to thrive.
And with spring butterflies struggling this year, due to the heavy rain and strong winds throughout much of May, there’s not a moment to lose to help Devon’s beautiful butterflies!
DWT can use a combination of staff, volunteers and contractors to create, restore and improve a range of butterfly and moth habitats across the county in 2021.
But we need to raise at least £8,000 this summer to support our work for Devon's butterflies.
Here are some of the many butterflies your donation or pledge will support.
Wood white butterflies are an uncommon species in the south-west, more likely to be found in woodland glades in central England. But DWT’s Meeth Quarry nature reserve, near Hatherleigh, has one of the largest colonies of wood whites in the country. With your support, wood white butterflies will benefit from management of around 300m of narrow ‘rides’ cut through wooded areas at Meeth Quarry.
Dingy skipper and marbled white
Another former industrial site being reclaimed by nature is Teigngrace Meadow, right next to the A38 near Bovey Tracey. If this area can be kept relatively open, it offers a great diversity of wildflowers for pollinators, including beautiful displays of green-winged orchids. But in part of the nature reserve right now, the dominant colour is the yellow of gorse flowers. By clearing areas of dense gorse scrub at Teigngrace Meadow, more open grassland habitats should boost numbers of many different insects, including marbled white and dingy skipper butterflies.
In East Devon, Bystock Pools nature reserve is part of the new Pebblebed Heaths National Nature Reserve. Butterflies that have evolved to thrive on heathland habitats include the silver-studded blue, which lays its eggs on heather and gorse, then the caterpillars eat the tender stems, buds or flowers of heather. Adults use heather as a nectar source. If we cut back some of the bramble and woody scrub to maintain areas of open habitat at Bystock, then there will be more space for both young and mature heather plants so every stage of the silver-studded blue’s lifecycle is catered for.
Marsh fritillaries remain one of the most endangered butterflies, not only in this country but across Europe, as wet grassland habitats have been drained, ploughed up or built on in recent decades. But marsh fritillaries can thrive on more than a dozen DWT nature reserves. Only if we help them though, with some detailed habitat management. By clearing scrub and swaling (burning) small areas of Culm grassland to encourage fresh growth of wildflowers including Devil’s bit scabious (the caterpillar’s food plant), we can ensure new generations of marsh fritillaries across northern Devon. There is more than 40 acres of scrub removal to be done on DWT’s Culm grassland nature reserves this year including Dunsdon (near Holsworthy), Rackenford & Knowstone Moors (right next to the North Devon Link Road), Volehouse Moor (near Bradworthy) and Meshaw Moor (near Witheridge.)
DWT’s Rackenford & Knowstone Moors nature reserve is the largest area of continuous Culm grassland habitat left in Devon. As a large open area that does mean it is vulnerable to wildfires in hot, dry conditions. By cutting 800 metres of firebreaks in different parts of the reserve we can reduce the risk of a wildfire devastating huge areas of wildlife habitat here, including the plants relied on by marsh fritillary butterflies and narrow bordered bee hawkmoths.
Grizzled skipper and brown hairstreak
Many butterfly species can benefit from habitat management at Woodah Farm, the former working farm near Doddiscombsleigh that is the base for DWT’s South Devon and Dartmoor nature reserves staff and long-term volunteers. With your support we can carry out a combination of cutting gorse scrub, (to aid butterflies of open grassland including meadow brown and grizzled skipper) while encouraging the growth of blackthorn scrub.
Blackthorn stems are one of the most common places for brown hairstreak butterflies to lay their eggs. Emerging as a caterpillar in spring, the brown hairstreak larvae feed on the blackthorn’s new leaves. As hedgerow blackthorns in the wider countryside have been removed or are cut back severely each year, destroying the brown hairstreak eggs in the process, it is vital we encourage blackthorn on land managed for wildlife.
In addition, we can harvest wildflower seed from another Dartmoor site to increase floral diversity in one of the old fields at Woodah.
Gatekeeper and holly blue
Vealand Farm, near Holsworthy, is another former farm that’s now a DWT nature reserve. Here, we plan to lay 50 metres of Devon hedge this year, a habitat that can support 12% of the UK’s insect population, providing nectar sources and larval food plants for a range of butterflies from gatekeeper to holly blue.
Pearl bordered fritillary and small pearl bordered fritillary
Marsland nature reserve, a wooded valley on the Atlantic coast where Devon meets Cornwall, is our longest-running success story in managing habitats for threatened butterflies. Pearl bordered and small pearl bordered fritillary butterflies are seen in their thousands here despite suffering devastating declines across much of the country. That’s because of the way we have encouraged the growth of violets, the food plant of the caterpillar of both these species.
By clearing some of the dense bracken on the valley sides, violets have space to grow, but as the bracken grows taller, the shade means the violets are not impeded by vigorous grass growth, so the caterpillars have plenty of food. However, the adult butterflies need some access to the ground to lay their eggs, so ‘rides’ are being cut through the bracken to give females the space they need.
We need to manage areas of bracken for fritillary butterflies this year and coppice some of the woodland to ensure more sunlight reaches the valley floor, to encourage further violets for the pearl bordered and small pearl bordered fritillary caterpillars to feed on.
Rewards for pledgers
We can offer guided tours around some of our best butterfly nature reserves for late spring and summer 2022. Join a DWT Nature Reserves Officer and a small group of fellow supporters and choose to visit:
- Woodah Farm, a site normally closed to the public where we are 'wilding' former agricultural land
- Meeth Quarry, a huge site of varied habitats including woodland, grassland, ponds and lakes, home to a wide range of butterflies, dragonflies, birds and other wildlife
- Bystock Pools, a jewel of a site in East Devon, with heathland, ponds, woodland and meadows featuring rare butterflies, dragonflies and heathland birds
- Marsland, a stunning wooded valley on the Atlantic coast, a haven for a diverse array of wildlife, including rare fritillary butterflies on the wing in their hundreds
- Dart Valley, a slice of wild Dartmoor alongside the rushing River Dart, with atmospheric oak woodland and bracken moorland featuring the endangered high brown fritillary
- Dunsdon, one of the best Culm grassland sites in Devon, with a vibrant summer display of orchids and ragged robin, and the marsh fritillary butterfly and narrow bordered bee hawkmoth the star insect species
We can also offer an exclusive artwork, a series of fun and characterful drawings celebrating Devon's fritillary butterflies, donated to DWT by Devon wildlife artist David Barlow.
We'd also like to help you create some butterfly-friendly habitat so pledgers can also receive a pack of 'meadow perennials' wildflower seeds or DWT's guide to making a meadow.
Please support our nature reserves staff and volunteers' full return - following the impact of the pandemic on our nature reserves management - so we can ensure habitats at DWT's 58 nature reserves allow Devon's beautiful butterflies to thrive. Thank you!